With the Conservative Party polling 20 per cent behind Labour and a General Election expected within the next year, Rishi Sunak has taken the biggest gamble of his Premiership in sacking his maverick Home Secretary Suella Braverman and appointing erstwhile Prime Minister David Cameron as Foreign Secretary in the resulting Cabinet reshuffle.
Sunak’s speech at last month’s Conservative Party Conference promised change. However, a list of worthy but somewhat disparate policy announcements failed to move the dial in the polls. Sunak was left short of options for a reset, however he was presented with an opportunity to reshuffle his administration after Braverman’s intemperate remarks on the homeless and pro-Palestine marchers made her position untenable. These were the latest in a series of incendiary remarks from Braverman which appeared designed more to appeal to the Right wing base of the Conservative membership than actually provide practical policy solutions. With Braverman sacked, Sunak opted for Foreign Secretary James Cleverly as her replacement. Cleverly has demonstrated that he is a safe pair of hands during his time at the Foreign Office and has avoided the diplomatic gaffes which were the hallmark of several of his most recent predecessors. By appointing Cleverly as Home Secretary, Sunak will be looking for someone to get results on totemic issues such as stopping small boat crossings and to calm relations with the police which were frayed after Braverman’s barbed comments.
It speaks volumes about the identity of Cleverly’s successor as Foreign Secretary that Braverman’s exit from Government has been eclipsed as the main story of this reshuffle. By resurrecting the political career of former Prime Minister David Cameron (through the granting of an immediate life peerage), Sunak has taken the biggest risk of his premiership. To say Cameron is a controversial choice for many Conservative MPs is an understatement. Many of those who supported Leave, especially those representing Red Wall constituencies who were propelled into the Commons by Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” mantra, will be dismayed by his appointment. Conversely, those representing seats in the affluent Home Counties such as Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire and Surrey which have seen previously safe Conservative seats become highly marginal following Liberal Democrat victories at recent local elections, will be reassured. In such areas, Braverman’s populist rhetoric was deeply unpopular, whereas Sunak will hope that Cleverly and Cameron’s more moderate and measured approach will help to improve the Party’s standing. At a hugely dangerous time in geopolitical affairs, there is no doubt that Cameron’s appointment will be welcomed by the UK’s international allies. Opposition MPs have been less positive about Cameron’s appointment questioning how a Foreign Secretary can be effectively scrutinised from the House of Lords.
In terms of the domestic appointments, a number of ambitious and youthful junior Ministers who supported Sunak in his leadership campaign have reached the Cabinet. These include Victoria Atkins (Secretary of State for Health), Laura Trott (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) and Richard Holden (Party Chairman). Trott and Holden are both Party insiders having served as Special Advisers in a reshuffle which saw professionalism prioritised over ideology. As with any reshuffle, we have seen departures from Government including a number of well-regarded mid-ranking Ministers who have become sector specialists – Nick Gibb, Will Quince, George Freeman and Jeremy Quin are particular losses.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Government reshuffle without a change of Housing Minister and Rachel Maclean was duly relieved of her duties after nine months in the role. Her replacement is one of her predecessors in Derbyshire North East MP Lee Rowley. The fact that Rowley is the 15th person to hold the role since 2010 underlines the precarious nature of a role which should be one of the most important in Government but for which the incumbent is invariably not afforded the time required to deliver meaningful policy achievements. This point is made by housing experts at every reshuffle but nothing changes. Having said this, Rowley is a smart politician and an original thinker who understands both the housing market of London (he is a former Westminster City Councillor) and in the regions (his seat is very much part of the Red Wall). His background in DLUHC as a former Local Government Minister will also provide a degree of continuity at a time of considerable legislative activity.
Where there has been change is the signal this reshuffle has sent to the wider Party and the electorate. By jettisoning Braverman and resurrecting Cameron, Sunak has made the strategic choice that he’s going to run a General Election campaign which focuses on holding traditional Conservative territory in the South rather than prioritising the retention of seats which were gained in 2019 on a populist platform. This strategy is not without risk but by not acting Sunak was doomed. Now he has chosen his course, it is vital that Sunak sticks to it.